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The early years
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The early yearsThis rustic-style box was in service near Blackburn. The photograph dates from 1907. Notice the coin-operated door lock. Coinboxes as we now know them were a later development.

Britain's first telephone exchanges opened at the end of the 1870s, providing a ser-vice for members only. To use the tele-phone one had to be a subscriber. The idea of using the new system on a pay-by-the-call basis came later when, in 1884, non-subscribers were first allowed to use the telephone.

The 'call office' had arrived. To begin with, call offices were indoors, often in shops, where proprietors offered the facility as a service to their customers and an attraction to new ones. As the tele-phone system grew, sites at other public places, such as railway stations and post offices, also began to be used. Subscrib-ers, whose annual fee included unlimited calls, were provided with identity tokens to enable them to use the offices without charge. Call offices first appeared as street telephone boxes around the beginning of the twentieth century. Some continued the practice of providing an attended service, but others relied on coin-in-the-slot devices on the door to collect the call fee.

There was no single design of box There were far too few for any economy of scale in their manufacture. Neverthe-less, the telephone system was growing. The requirements of a good telephone box were beginning to be better understood and so, even though the numbers concerned were tiny in comparison with today, three main styles of kiosk became predominant: the 'Wilson', named after its manufacturer, and the 'Birmingham' and 'Norwich' patterns, named after the areas where they originated. All three were made of wood.

The National Telephone Company (NTC) provided by far the majority of Britain's telephones and exchanges, but only under a 31-year licence granted by the government in 1880. Its trunk system had been taken into state control in 1896, and in 1905 the company was told that its licence would not be renewed when it expired. Except in Hull and Portsmouth, where telephones were provided by the local council, from the end of 1911 the Post Office (GPO) would be responsible for the entire telephone network. The two local authority systems would remain in local hands, linking into the Post Office network for long-distance calls. The Portsmouth system remained independent for only a very little while longer, being sold to the Post Office in 1913. Hull continued as the only locally managed system.

With uniform control came moves towards uniform practice. The GPO and NTC staff were merged, stores and accounting systems were standardised, and thought turned to production of a standard design of telephone kiosk. The GPO looked at the models that were already in use and preferred the Birmingham pattern. Work began to see how a more ornamental version of it might be developed. Perhaps it might be painted red and be made of materials other than wood. However, it was not until after the First World War that the plans finally came to fruition.

The early years

Bolton, 1905. One of the earliest confirmed street telephone boxes, this NTC box was one of two in Victoria Square, opposite the town hall. The second one was operated in competition by the Post Office.

The early years

The Wilson Company of Southsea manufactured one of the more numerous early telephone boxes. The 'Wilson A' pattern was its most popular model.

The early years

Left: The 'Norwich' pattern kiosk. It is believed that this photograph was taken during the GPO's review of the available designs.
Right: This 'Birmingham' unit was finished with varnish. There was no standard colour or finish at the time.

The early years

A fine group of five K2 kiosks, just off Bow Street in London. Initially just a pair, the oldest units here date from 1926, with additional units having been added as use increased. The unit nearest the camera dates from 1934.

The early years

An enamel sign used to promote the call-office service of the National Telephone Company. The detail was in blue on a white ground.

The early years

This ornate iron box was operated by an attendant employed by the National Telephone Company. The site is today one of the entrances to Chancery Lane underground station, London.

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